Old Bill's still arresting

Review: Cosby in Montreal

Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival has drawn to a close, with almost 1.5million people enjoying the various outdoor events, and a further 256,000 attending shows at the 26 official venues.

At the closing night gala comedy legend Carl Reiner, film director, writer for Sid Ceaser, friend of Mel Brooks and father of Rob Reiner, was inducted into the Just for Laughs International Comedy Hall of Fame and regailed the adoring audience with anecdotes from his 40 years in the business.

Here David Bloom reviews a couple of highlights from the festival - Bill Cosby and, below, Best Of The Uptown Comics


Bill Cosby

The 2,000-seat theatre at Place St. Denis had been sold out for a month by the time Bill Cosby shuffled on to stage.

The comedy veteran ''Cos', as he's affectionately known, surfs a wave of goodwill as he takes to the stage wearing a pear of tracksuit bottoms a T-shirt, and Birkenstock sandals and white socks: This is a man who does not need to impress.

Indeed you might be forgiven for thinking you were visiting your favourite grandfather as he lowered himself gingerly into a seat on a Persian rug centrestage. He promises the crowd, some of whom have paid more than $100 (£45) a ticket that in a bid to stand out, he will not attempt any fake French accents, they howl their appreciation.

Complaining about the echo on his mike, he looks offstage reproachfully and says 'I'm not a rock act'. The audience laps it up, but in a way Cosby is a rock. He was there before Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock and will probably outlast them all.

It's hard to describe exactly what Cosby does but in a solo show lasting over two hours,he mostly recaptures the wonder years of childhood. "It was wonderful." is almost his catchphrase.

Even at 66, he remains a surprisingly physical comedian. As he paces the stage to show the difference between a young couple in love and an old married couple in love, the crowd hoots in recognition.

Kneeling on the floor to recreate the thrill of playing marbles or dizzying shock of his first kiss, this is a comic who can reduce an auditorium to laughter just by sitting on a chair and staring into his lap. Above all else he is a master storyteller, with beautifully structured tales and a novelist eye for the crucial detail.

In one story Cosby plays his mother, father, grandfather and himself age seven without ever seeming winsome.

If you are yearning for a kinder simpler time, Bill Cosby can take you there. Couching his show as advice to young males of the species, this is universal comedy at its best, touching on broad simple themes and scenario's familiar to all of us, and the closest he comes to profanity is 'What the hamfat!'.

But he hasn't lost his sharpness. The nearest thing to a heckle came during an exquisite story of how as a girl-hating little boy he first saw people French kissing. A woman in the front row, perhaps forgetting the 1,999 other people in the room, said "My, how we've changed" and Cosby quipped back "No, at 66 I'm pretty much back to just the kissing!".


Best Of The Uptown Comics

When the compere is a suited 21-stone man with a diamond earring, who walks on stage with six scantily clad women and his first words to the audience are "Give it up for the ladies!" you know you are in for a certain type of evening.

Its 11pm and welcome to the Uptown show, Montreal's showcase for hot black talent. With levels of profanity that would make a sailor blush and a house band who belt out up-tempo classics to warm up a 600-strong crowd in the already sweltering heat of Spectrum Theatre, this not just comedy, it is full-on entertainment.

Host Bruce Bruce's set is, predictably, about his outsized proportions and love of donuts but he carries it off with panache - especially stories of his uncle who can laugh without moving his face.

First on act is Godfrey, an incredibly self-confident and energetic young act from New York. He is shamelessly enjoying himself on-stage and plays to the crowd with stories of growing upa Nigerian-American.

His impression of his father as Mufasa from the Lion King almost brought the house down, as did a routine which will never let you look at the Williams sisters in the same way again. A movie career surely beckons.

Chris Spencer lacked Godfrey's boundless confidence but his stories of inter-racial dating strike a chord with his audience. He is Jamaican-America and most of his routine explores the attitudes of the young Jamaican male and the jealousy of women. He isn't pushing any boundaries and doesn't need to, as the crowd lap it up.

When Russell Peters walks on you can feel the mood of the room shift subtly - not because he's the only Canadian but because he isn't black. His parents are from India. His routine about Indians being brought to South Africa as slave labour brought a huge applause break as did his impressions of the South African Hosa dialect that uses tongue-clicks as part of everyday speech. A smart and confident performer he will no doubt find a sitcom coming his way.

Sheri Sinclair, one of the festival's New Faces has a nice, if predictable, line in audience baiting - 'Where my strong, powerful ladies at? Maybe that why you on your own tonight!' - but her blisteringly dirty routines about her sexual prowess failed to deliver more than cheap titilation.

Rodman, another New Faces hopeful has an ingratiating charm and a nice line in storytelling. He has the most interesting technique of the acts, playing the fool, and using verbal repetition and redundancy to good effect. Like all American comics he has a story of about terrorists and airline travel - but his comes across as endearing.

Victor Togunde, another Nigerian-American made the mistake of telling the audience that he grew up rich and his routines didn't seem to find their mark, or perhaps the audience was flagging as it approached 1am.

Short and stout, Cheryl Underwood was the most experienced comic on the bill, which might explain why she managed to slip in a dated Bill Clinton joke (punchline "they'd a have to pumped my stomach to find his DNA!") . But her routines on the Catholic church and difference between black and white women raising children brought the house down.

Rounding off the evening was an a capella group Naturally 7, not comedy but impressive nontheless. Their incongrous beatboxing to an old Cyndi Lauper track brought a bizarre end to an extraordinary evening.

Although many of the comics covered much the same ground and all owed a debt to Chris Rock, the level of performance skill and sheer bravura was awe-inspiring.

For a review of Montreal's Britcom show

Published: 19 Jul 2003

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